FX’s American Horror Story
Season 4, Episode 7: “Test of Strength”
Directed by Anthony Hemingway
Written by Crystal Liu
* For a review of the previous episode, “Bullseye” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Blood Bath” – click here
Back to the carnival, once again.
This episode starts with Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters) coming to see Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson) at the Mott residence. He wants them to come back with him, saying they see them as a “freak to gawk at.” He talks about the community back at the tent city who’ll protect them. Yet Dandy (Finn Wittrock) and his mother Gloria (Frances Conroy) won’t have it. We get a quick flashback as Jimmy remembers Dandy the night of the clown attack in the forest. During everything, Dandy lets slip he read Dot’s diary; she is done with him completely now. Bette at first seems on Dandy’s side. However, she can’t go against Dot: “I choose my sister. Always.” Thankfully Jimmy takes them when he goes.
Is this the undoing of Dandy? Will he completely unravel?
My favourite song of the season comes in this episode when Jimmy steps on the stage and fronts a cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”, forty years or so before its time. Excellent use of the covers in Freak Show; Ryan Murphy says they were all chosen because of the artists themselves, from any period, who considered themselves freaks. A great choice. Not only that, but Evan Peters here sounds so much like Kurt Cobain it’s almost incredible. He has a nice voice.
Underneath the song, there’s a montage including Dell Toledo (Michael Chiklis) at a bar looking for Andy (Matt Bomer), long dead. He ends up assaulting the bartender, then along the periphery of the scene lurks Stanley (Denis O’Hare). Uh oh, looks like blackmail could be on the horizon for ole Dell.
Jimmy knows the truth now and he and Elsa butt heads. Introduce: the Tattler Twins. They’ve come back to the show. Yet the girls don’t go along with Jimmy, they decide to lie and say “she helped us.” They wanted to experience “the finer things in life“, and basically Elsa only facilitated that by bringing them to the Motts. Hmm. Revenge, perhaps? Or are the Tattlers planning on some blackmail of their own? Exciting.
Desiree Dupree (Angela Bassett) takes Ethel Darling (Kathy Bates) down to her doctor’s office. Only it says the place it closed up. Inside, one of the doctor’s daughters is cleaning things out. She’s there to bury her father. His hands were smashed, then supposedly he blew his brains out: did he actually do that because of his hands, or did Dell do the job and make it look like suicide? I’d vote the latter.
Stanley is already worming his way into Dell’s life. He makes comments about being “a fairy” because he “can‘t get it up“; the test of strength bell, that is. Dell easily pops it up in defiance, but Stanley brings up the bar called High Noon – the gay bar where he saw him. Blackmail certainly is afoot, as I suspected. Maggie (Emma Roberts) breaks up a potential fight between the two, or a beating from Dell, then the ruse begins. Stanley believes he “lacks a moral code,” so he proceeds to enlist the strongman to help him get a body: a freak body.
Jimmy and Maggie are getting closer and closer now. He says his head is “all screwed up,” so she keeps suggesting leaving, only sooner. She wants to just take off, but Jimmy has a feeling there’s something sinister happening; lots of things, from Dandy and his involvement with Twisty as the second clown, to Elsa and her nefarious business. Jimmy wants a couple days to get things straightened. Maggie thinks it’s “bullshit.”
Meanwhile, Dell is preparing to take one of the freaks for Stanley. He creeps in on Amazon Eve (Erika Ervin), trying to knock her out with formaldehyde. But why pick a tough, big woman like her? She kicks the shit out of Dell, then one-lines: “Who‘s the strongman now?” before throwing him from the trailer.
Everyone is deliberating in her trailer the next morning about what to do. Ethel wants to go into his trailer and kill him when he least expects. The women have a different view, though. They know more than just the laughs, the looks, the casual violence. They’ve experienced the worst looks, the worst sort of physical violence, as female ‘freaks’. Ethel manages to instill in her son a sense of what the world is truly like, the tears in her eyes as she describes how things are not how they seem in his head. She makes it clear: “He‘s gotta pay.” Jimmy says he’ll handle things with Dell, and his mother stresses that he better do it, “or we will.”
“You know what your problem is, Jimmy? You‘re stuck on the rosy notion that the world operates on goodness, decency. Truth is – all goodness guarantees ya is an early grave. But the biggest joke of all – the thing that‘ll sink ya every time is hope. Hope that the world will right itself. That the just will be rewarded and the wicked punished. Oh, once you buy into that horseshit, you‘re dead in the water. The only way to survive in this disgusting godforsaken world is to take control. Ain‘t nobody gonna take care of our people but us.”
And so Dell winds up going into town with Jimmy, all the while spying the kid’s hands with Stanley off in the distance, nodding his head.
At the same time, Bette and Dot are scheming in the tent with Elsa. Well, they’re scheming for themselves. Elsa is going to give in to certain demands from the twins, who want everything from dyed blond hard to 20% of the box office, plus Bette now craves “caviar for breakfast.” Of course, to cover up her nastiness I’m sure Elsa is willing to do, or try to do, just about anything. Only her eyes change to darkness, slyly, as Dot suggests maybe they need to take 50% of the box.
In a dim lit bar, Dell and Jimmy sit together drinking, even though it’s not really Jimmy’s wheelhouse. Eventually, Jimmy takes off his gloves to pour them a drink and it makes Dell go a little soft. He tells Jimmy to take them off and that if anyone has anything to say, he’ll “break their skulls.” “Unless it‘s a girl, right?” Jimmy replies, and they both laugh together. Outside while Jimmy throws up you can see Dell debating whether or not to kill Jimmy, he even picks up a brick momentarily. Before Jimmy reveals he’s “always known” Dell was his father, even just from the way Ethel hates him he says. Bits and pieces of Dell’s history fall out from time to time, and this is a great scene, an emotional one.
Stanley still doesn’t have a body yet, after the father-son connection happened at the bar. And so Dell must find himself another freak. Who will that be?
Penny (Grace Gummer) returns home to tell her father Vince (Lee Tergesen) she’s off to stay with Paul (Mat Fraser), they are in love. Only her father won’t have any of that talk. At least not before he’s permanently reminded the world that now he has no daughter. He has a sketchy artist friend named Morris (Jason ‘Skitch’ King) come over. Then he puts his daughter out for a while. When she wakes, her tongue is forked, her head partly shaved and every inch of the skin on her face tattooed beyond recognition: she appears as a lizard. Daddy is a horror and marked her, so that she’d fit right in at the freak show. She runs back to Paul, who is devastated that he has been part of the reason why Penny is forever, permanently altered. Such a sad situation, yet I’m glad they were in love before, as she at least has Paul. But her father did such a shameful thing, it’s incredibly vicious. A truly savage act.
Elsa is now trying to play the Tattler Twins against one another, insulting Dot while Bette gets a new blonde makeover. First, she starts by dropping a note to Dot on the sly, offering some ‘help’. Dot replies in order to get in contact with the doctor, Oscar Sugar, who can separate conjoined twins.
Best of all, in this sequence with the letter we get an amazingly beautiful split-screen moment where Elsa’s face is in a completely dark frame split against Dot reading the little letter. Another great instance of the aesthetic style of American Horror Story. Furthermore, the reply from Dot is done in the same manner. It reminds me of an old film, with the black-and-white aesthetic of the split-screen. Great stuff.
Stanley and Elsa are talking about what to do with the twins. She wants him to get in contact with Dr. Sugar. But when Stanley suggests they ought to be given a “mercy killing” and Elsa sounds pretty interested, Ethel overhears the conversation while serving dessert.
Worst of all, late in the night Dell finds his freak victim: Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge). He brings her a new dress, pleasing the little lady so much. She believes Dell is her new friend. Except he hugs her, then slowly snaps her in two. We cut to Ma Petite on display at the Museum of Morbid Curiosities, floating in a formaldehyde jar.
A nasty and pleasing episode, a great helping of intriguing horror. Plenty of creepiness. The next episode, “Blood Bath”, is another intense outing.